16th of March this year The Economist run a cover which read 'The America that works' and the issue contained a special report on US competitiveness which my mind keeps coming back to lately. It looked at the US and the way the states have been proactive in fixing what has been left behind by the federal government as it entangles itself further and further in partisan wrangling and special interests. Over the last few weeks, as the world watches the extreme wing of GOP hold the world's largest economy hostage over Obamacare, with latest demands just getting weirder and weirder, this Washington paralysis has become more and more pronounced, moving from humorous to sad, and now to catastrophic.
The report was a timely reminder that the US as the world knows it is not the US which has spent the last quarter of a millennium dragging itself from a plucky little puritan colony in an uncivilized corner of the world to the throne of the world's military and economic arena. It got there, and stayed there, not because of Washington shenanigans, its cultural rifts, or knee-jerk reaction to the external world, which seems to be the only things conveyed to the rest of the world. It did so because it is a highly elastic, adaptable system capable of withstanding economic, military and cultural shocks that would shatter an empire at any other time in human history. Don't believe me? Imagine China going through the same economic smack down the US got in the last six years. Scary thought.
Now, the reasons for this are multitude: the depth of US markets, its fiscal flexibility, the power of the US dollar, towering universities, cultural diversity, etc. Each one must be taken with a grain of salt of course, and there is uncountable scholarship picking each one of those apart. Yet taken together, even the most adamant US-haters admit that as a political entity (in a Waltzian kind of way) it stands unrivalled on the international stage. But what about democracy? Is it a component of what got the US to where it is? That particular debate rages on, and all I'm going to add is that I think the fact that it is a Republic compared to other systems of government is more pertinent to this argument than what form of government it is. Food for thought: Soviet Union was a Republic, and technically China is one now. (My two cents are EU is that thats exactly where its going and where it needs to go flex its international muscle.) But this is a matter for another time, as there is a cascade of causation issues here as well as definitional ones.
The point is, individual states within the US have been working hard at attempting a myriad of solutions to problems long forgotten by Washington, from education, to infrastructure, to economy. Autonomy of this scale is hard to imagine anywhere in the modern world except in those nations where the government is too weak to matter at all. (Which is where I sort of place EU if it is to be viewed as a single entity.) And this matters, because every conversation regarding international relations, international political economy, or any political theory for that matter, always returns to the same issue: is this the era of US decline or will this be another 'American Century'? And while the headlines have been filled with dire predictions to this end for decades now, this unique nature of the US states to compensate for federal weaknesses would cast doubt on these doomsayers. Lately, though, I'm not sure that's going to be enough. While "[t]he only way Washington’s duelling politicians could kill off the budding improvements to America’s competitiveness would be by deliberate sabotage", last few weeks indicate that that is exactly what is happening.